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Weekend Recap: Massachusetts Splits With Michigan State

Coming off last weekend’s 8-1 loss where the young Massachusetts team collapsed in the third period when faced with adversity, what I was hoping to see in this weekend’s series with Michigan State was an ability to battle and stay in the game.  I think you can safely say that was accomplished as the team fought hard all weekend on the way to a split with the Spartans.  The Minutemen got exactly what they needed if they want to be successful this season; a lot of contributions from the freshmen and sophomores.

I was only able to listen to both games, so I won’t be able to get too deep in my analysis.  On Friday the Minutemen lost 5-3.  After a first period that saw MSU take a 2-0 lead and UMass defenseman Ben Gallacher get seriously injured after a check from behind, one had to wonder how UMass would respond in the second.  It was an early test to see if the team had learned anything from the third period against BU.  And it didn’t take long for them to show that in this case they would choose to battle rather than fold.  They scored two quick goals to start the second frame, the first a was off the stick of Keith Burchett after a nice cross-ice pass (or shot?) from Shane Walsh.  Just a few minutes after that Zack LaRue tied the game on a shorthanded goal after a nice feed from Dennis Kravchenko.  Michigan State regained the lead midway through the period on a power play goal.  Being down a defenseman started to take its toll however and Michigan State would extend its lead to 5-2 after a couple goals early in the third.  Again UMass hung in there and Burchett would score again on a wrister, again off a pass from Shane Walsh, 13 minutes into the period.

That would do it though and Michigan State picked up the win.  Judging from the radio commentary UMass continued to show lapses in their own defensive end and got a shaky performance from Steve Mastalerz in net.  Still, they had to play with five defensemen the whole game so that certainly had an effect on how the defense fared.  The Gallacher injury is a tough one since UMass is only carrying seven defensemen on the roster until Brandon Montour is due to arrive in December.

There were some key positives on Friday despite the loss.  Certainly the play of Burchett and his linemate Walsh were the most obvious.  But I think just the fact that most of the game was give and take with both teams trading scores showed that the young UMass team is maturing and learning how to handle the different situations that come up during the game.  While there were breakdowns, the team played hard for all sixty minutes and they were never really out of the game.  And it put them in a good jumping off point for Saturday.

FTT Player of the Game (Friday) – Keith Burchett
This is an easy one.  Some of the other freshman forwards had the great reputations as forwards, but it ends up being Burchett to have the first breakout game among the group.  Good things happen when you attack the net, and that’s exactly what he did in his first goal when Walsh found him from the other side of the ice.

The theme of the weekend was battle, and that’s exactly what Saturday’s game was.  A battle.  Luckily for the Minutemen they got the last punch in just before the bell.  Patrick Lee’s first collegiate goal with 9.9 seconds left gave UMass its first win of the season with a 4-3 final score.  The game was dominated by the underclassemen with freshmen and sophomores accounting for all four goals and 11 of the 12 points in the game.  On the other end of the ice freshman Henry Dill got a win in his first start, finishing with 28 saves.

The teams were held scoreless for the first 15 minutes of the game and then quickly saw three goals scored in the last five minutes of the period.  Steven Iacobellis got the scoring started only to have Spartan Matt Berry answer just over a minute later.  Jake Horton then picked up his second goal of the season to give the Minutemen the lead going into the second period.  Berry would pick up the lone goal of the second period and then take the 3-2 lead just seconds into the third.  It stayed that way for most of the third until Iacobellis picked up his second with four and a half minutes left in the game to tie it.  Michigan State would make a critical mistake with four minutes left in the game when Justin Hoomainian got a game misconduct for a contact to the head penalty, allowing UMass to play the balance of regulation with an extra man.  With 9.9 seconds left Lee got the game winner and UMass comes home to Amherst with the split.

There were a lot of positives to take away from last night’s game.  Obviously freshmen Lee and Dill playing big roles in the win is one of them.  Horton is living up to his reputation as an offensive threat with his second goal on the young season.  The biggest thing last night was how well sophomore forwards Iacobellis and Ray Pigozzi played.  After being held scoreless in the first two games of the season Iacobellis had the two goals to go with two assists.  Pigozzi had three assists on the night.  There are still a few things to be concerned about however.  The depth at defense could be an issue if Gallacher is out for a while.  UMass fans are also wondering when they’ll hear from Frank Vatrano and Dennis Kravchenko.  The two are first and second on the team in shots on goal but have only combined for one point through the first three games, an assist by Kravchenko.   Freshman Anthony Petrella was also expected to be an offensive threat after leading prep powerhouse Shattuck-St Mary’s in goals last season but through three games hasn’t registered a shot on net.

The split was a success from my standpoint as the team made strides in shaking off the poor performance against BU last week.  The freshmen showed that they can be counted on to contribute and did not seem to be intimidated by playing on the road.  That’s key considering next weekend they’ll be playing in their first league road games at Boston College and Northeastern.

FTT Player of the Game (Saturday) – Steven Iacobellis
Lee was the hero and Dill did well in his first start but two goals and two assists, including on the game winner, gets Iacobellis the nod.

Friday’s recap and Saturday’s recap from UMass Athletics.

USCHO’s game story from Friday.

There wasn’t much other coverage of the series to share.

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Michigan State Preview

Michigan State Spartans 0-0-0 (0-0-0)  Big Ten T-1st

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Massachusetts Minutemen 0-1-0 (0-1-0)  Hockey East T-4th

The Massachusetts hockey team kicks off their non-conference schedule and a key three week, three state road stretch Friday night in East Lansing, Michigan against the Spartans of Michigan State.  The Minutemen will be looking to rebound from a season opening loss to the Boston University Terriers in a game where the lopsided 8-1 final score masks the fact that they were only down a single goal after two periods.  UMass and Michigan State met this same weekend last year in Amherst with UMass gaining the weekend sweep, outscoring the Spartans 8-3 in the two games.  The series featured a couple multi-goal games from Minutemen with Branden Gracel netting two on Friday and then freshman Steven Iacobellis scoring two goals to go with an assist on the Saturday.

Michigan State hasn’t played a real game this year so it’s tough to know exactly what the Minutemen will be facing when they take the ice at Munn Ice Arena on Friday.  They did have an exhibition game against a Canadian team as well as an intrasquad scrimmage.  The results of the intrasquad scrimmage could be an indicator for what Sparty fans are in store for this year.  The game ended in a 0-0 tie and had to be settled with penalty shots.  That in a nutshell could be what Michigan State faces this year, an inability to score and above average goaltending.

MSU lost their top three scorers from a team that only scored 2.19 goals per game last year.  They’ll first look to senior Matt Berry to solve their scoring woes as he’s coming off a season that saw him score 10 times total despite missing a third of the season due to injury.  That’s it in terms of returners who scored double digits in goals.  Junior Michael Ferrantino, captain of the team, had 9 goals and 11 assists last year.  Friday will mark the first game in the green and white for freshman Dylan Pavalek who is expected to contribute quickly as he comes out of the US National Development Program.

There are no question marks for the Spartans in net where junior Jake Hillenbrand will likely keep his team in a lot of games this season.  As a sophomore last year his .923 save percentage ranked him among the top 20 goaltenders in the country.  If he continues to develop MSU could end up being one of the better defensive teams in the country.

On offense UMass is facing the same challenges as Michigan state.  They’ve lost a lot of scoring from their team that last year was ranked near the bottom nationally for offense.  Unlike Michigan State, they have a much larger freshman class that will be looked upon to pick up the slack for goals this season.  Defenseman Jake Horton got on the scoring sheet last week, but the freshman forwards plus Frank Vatrano need to break out as well.  The top line of Vatrano, Dennis Kravchenko, and senior captain Troy Power got some good looks last week but need to find the back of the net.  A little worrisome is the sophomore duo of Ray Pigozzi and Iacobellis who only combined for three total shots against BU.  They’ll need to generate more offense than that to have an impact on the outcome.

I think more than Xs and Os or line combinations what’s most important this weekend is for the team to give a consistent effort and stay mentally tough.  For the freshman the first game jitters should be history.  The team has had another week to get used to linemates and perhaps learn new schemes.  It was awful to witness and seriously concerning at the time when it was occurring, but several days later the third period collapse doesn’t worry me as much as it did.  I think we can write if off to inexperience and the pressure of the night.  But that doesn’t mean it’ll be acceptable going forward.  Giving up goals in bunches like that and not getting back on defense simply cannot happen.  And hopefully the lesson has been learned that you just cannot let up like they did, because a team like BU will make you pay for it over and over.

The timing of this road trip is probably a good thing for the team.  They’re able to do some travelling, which could work to bond the team together.  And the first year players will have a chance to get used to a typical road trip routine and dealing with a hostile crowd before they head to Northeastern and Boston College next weekend in games that will count towards the Hockey East standings.  I don’t think there is a ton of pressure on the team to repeat last year’s sweep but at the same time  such a result isn’t completely unreasonable.  But at the end of the weekend it’ll probably be enough to just know that the offense is starting to click and the players are not missing their defensive responsibilities before moving on to the conference game trips in the coming weeks.

Beer The Triangle
East Lansing is actually a town I’ve spent significant time in.  Unfortunately for my BTT feature,most of that time was close to 20 years ago and before I turned 21.  This looks like somewhere I’d check out though.  Hell, you could always just drive down to Kalamazoo and check out one of my favorite breweries, Bell’s Brewing.

The Collegian has their preview of the Spartan series.

Frank Vatrano and Steve Mastalerz made this All-Massachusetts Team put together by Jeff Cox of SB Nation.

Ever want to drive the Zamboni at the Mullins?  Here is your chance!

View From Section U: Can UMass Win With Mick?

For my first View From Section U column of the season I might as well answer the question I’ve been asked pretty regularly going back to the end of last season.  Whether it be through social media, or on message boards, or at UMass football tailgates, or on the Mullins concourse following last Friday’s 8-1 loss, I’ve been asked the same question over and over.  “Can UMass win with Mick?”  I think it’s a natural question for Massachusetts hockey fans to ask.  Coach Micheletto has struggled so far, guiding the Minutemen to just 20 wins and a .341 winning percentage in his first two years in Amherst.  Attendance has dipped.  There has been some head scratching roster turnover.  There have been high profile recruits lost.  At the same time, out of Mick’s control and unfair to him, was the embarrassing debacle of a coaching transition led by Athletic Director John McCutcheon which didn’t make it easy for the fans of the program to rally around whomever was eventually selected to lead the team.  It’s been understandably tough to be a UMass hockey fan over the last two years and when you compile that with the five non-winning seasons that preceded under Toot Cahoon it’s no wonder that fans are impatient and desperate for any sign of a turnaround.

That of course leads to the question as we enter Micheletto’s third year at the helm of “Can UMass win with Mick?”  To which, I will give a confident answer of “I don’t know”.  And I’ll follow that up with an equally unhelpful “Ask me in 6 to 12 months.”  I’m not trying to avoid the question.  There is just too much unknown, too many question marks, and frankly too many newcomers to be able to fairly answer the question.

Mick has spent the last two years trying to implement a very specific system that requires a very specific skill set with the wrong type of players.  I’m not going to rehash it again, but the fact is that the square peg/round hole era of the last two seasons is over.  We got a little taste of what the right type of players can do in this system last season and I would think most fans were pleasantly surprised with what they saw from Mick’s first real class of recruits, specifically the play of Ray Pigozzi and Steven Iacobellis.  That type of play will hopefully only be the beginning.  This fall it’s like a dump truck backed up to the Mullins and unloaded an entire shipment of Mick recruits.  There are nine freshman on the roster for this season to go with last year’s five freshmen and transfer Ben Gallacher.  Add in 2nd round NHL draft pick Brandon Montour who is due to join the team in December plus the much talked about Frankie Vatrano, who essentially redshirted last year, and this roster suddenly looks entirely different from the team that won 20 games in the last two years.  Will they win?  I have no idea.  We’ll find out!

I usually think of Year 3 of a coach’s tenure to be make or break.  After two years of a coach putting their imprint on the program Year 3 is typically when fans’ expectations should migrate from hoping for wins to expecting them.  Not necessarily expecting a team to turn into world beaters mind you, but showing evidence of a recognizable trend towards success.  There are two factors, outside of his control, that makes those type of typical Year 3 expectations challenging to put upon Mick this year.  First is the a aforementioned Toot resignation/coaching search debacle by AD John McCutcheon.  Coaches are fired and hired in March or April.  Not July.  An incoming coach usually has a chance to meet with players before they leave for the summer and get them acquainted with strategy and training techniques.  Some coaches can even make some late additions to the incoming recruiting class.  Hired as late as he was, Mick was lucky enough to have his office unpacked before the players hit campus much less prepare them for an entire new way of doing things.  The other hindrance for him was the unbalanced class size.  He brought in a good number of players last year (and tried for more but was caught up in the red tape that enveloped Vatrano’s situation) but the team was still dominated by upperclassmen, brought in by Coach Toot Cahoon and his staff, suited to play a different style of hockey.  Mick and his staff basically had to wait for this current class of freshman to really make this their team.

And, in my opinion of someone who follows recruiting but still only has a fan’s knowledge of the sport, it’s a good and talented freshman class.  It’s not going to get the headlines.  It’s not going to make a list on a website.  But as I wrote in my season preview this class knows how to score and they’ve already proven in their careers that they can win.  I think these players are good enough that Mick can win with this class (plus Vatrano).  I don’t know if that winning would be sooner or later though.  I also don’t know what the ceiling is with these specific players.  But I think they’re better than the second to last place in Hockey East rut that UMass has seemingly made its home.  And the additional good news is that the future classes seem pretty talented too, with a number of players good enough that they’re getting the attention of USA Hockey and similar organizations.

So I think that Mick and his staff are assembling the players who can help turn around the program, even despite the loss of high profile recruits like Jake Wahlin and Alex DeBrincat.  With better suited players now on campus it’s even more important to educate and coach those players to be effective and successful in the offensive oriented system that has been implemented under his watch.  We’ve seem some glimpses of what that system can deliver, the most obvious being the 22% power play conversion last year, 2nd best among Hockey East teams.  But, don’t let that fleeting glimpse fool you, there is still a lot of work to be done.  We saw this first hand in the third period against BU where it didn’t take much to expose the risks inherent in such a system, not to mention risks inherent with inexperience, on the defensive end.  While the recruiting has been good so far, in my opinion, there’s probably one more key piece needed.  An elite goaltender.  That’s not a knock on Steve Mastalerz, who I think has always been unheralded and reliable.  Same goes for the other goaltenders on the roster.  But this system really needs a special goaltender who can make those unexpected saves on the odd man rushes that this system will eventually produce even on its good days.  Mick and the staff have been involved in the recruitment of a few of these special type of goaltenders, notably Alex Naglevoort who put up impressive numbers for Michigan last year.  But finally landing a top notch goaltender next year could be the key to sustained success and could help answer the question about just what is the ceiling for success in the coming years.

So that’s my answer to the question to whether UMass can win with Mick.  I don’t know.  I think the tools to win are coming into place.  Whether they’re used effectively or are even the right mix of players, remains to be seen.  But I believe UMass can win with these players.  When?  Well that’s a different story.  Just the sheer amount of first year players on this team means there’s going to be some serious growing pains this season.  Last Friday’s third period is submitted as Exhibit A to that fact.  The question is whether we’ll be able to accurately gauge if these players, and thus this staff, are what this program needs by the end of this season.  Given the youth and inexperience, is it too much to ask for the team to be winning by year’s end?  Again, I don’t know.  I would think at the very latest next year at this time it’s entirely fair for UMass fans to expect, not hope for, wins from this program.  Not near wins.  Not moral wins.  Wins.  The real ones.  The ones that they show in the standings and everything.  In the meantime I’m just going to do my best to be patient, get to know the newcomers who are donning the maroon and white for the first time, and watch some hockey.

The Collegian has this story on senior Zack LaRue embracing a leadership role on the heels of being named an assistant captain last week.

Captain Troy Power’s latest blog entry centers around LaRue and Oleg Yevenko’s leadership and the role of the freshmen on the team.

SBNation’s Jeff Cox is reporting that former BU forward and 2nd round NHL draft pick Sam Kurker is nearing a decision on where to continue his college career and that UMass is the front runner.  Kurker struggled at BU, amassing just four goals and two assists in one and a half seasons, but obviously he is skilled or the St Louis Blues wouldn’t have used a top draft pick on him.  Later tonight Mike McMahon reported that Kruker is still choosing between a number of schools, including Northeastern and Ohio State, so we’ll see how this ends up.

Former Minuteman Matt Irwin did well last night, scoring the fastest two goals by a player to open a game in Sharks history.

Both teams have their previews up for this weekend.  Here’s UMass’  And here’s State’s.

Recruit Update

Brandon Montour – D – Waterloo Blackhawks (USHL) – Dec 2014
5 GP / 0 G / 6 A / 6 Pts / 2 PIM / +3
Montour is already the top scoring defenseman in the league with his 6 points, tied for 8th among all skaters.

Brandon Egli – D – Vernon Vipers (BCHL) – 2015
4 GP / 0 G / 0 A / 0 Pts / 0 PIM
Egli made his debut for the Vipers over the weekend after being traded from Victoria

Jake McCarthy – D – South Shore Kings (USPHL) – 2015 or 2016
0 GP / 0 G / 0 A / 0 Pts / 0 PIM
McCarthy is still nursing an injury that is delaying his debut for the Kings.

Kurt Keats – C – Powell River Kings (BCHL) – 2015
8 GP / 6 G /5 A / 11 Pts / 10 PIM
Keats had a strong week with two goals and an assist over the weekend.  He’s currently tied for 6th in the BCHL for goals and tied for 15th for points.

Austin Plevy – C – Brooks Bandits (AJHL) – 2015
13 GP / 7 G /13 A / 20 Pts / 20 PIM
Plevy is third in the league in points and tied for 12th in goals.

Troy Conzo – RW – Des Moines Buccaneers (USHL) – 2016 or 2017
1 GP / 0 G /0 A /0 Pts / 0 PIM
Conzo still has only played one game for the Bucs.

Kyler Nachtigall – LW – Brooks Bandits (AJHL) – 2016
13 GP / 2 G / 2 A / 4 Pts / 33 PIM
Nachtigall had a goal this past week.

Shane Bear – D – Brooks Bandits (AJHL) – 2016
13 GP / 0 G / 8 A / 8 Pts / 14 PIM
Bear had three assists in his three game this past week.  He’s tied for second on Brooks in that category.

Ty Pelton-Byce – C – Team Wisconsin U18 (Elite)/Madison Memorial (WI HS) – 2016
15 GP / 9 G / 10 A / 18 Pts / 8 PIM  Team Wisconsin U18
0 GP / 0 G / 0 A / 0 Pts  Madison Memorial
Pelton-Byce is tied for 8th in goals and 10th in points in the Elite League, despite playing few games than most of the other players.

John Leonard – F – Springfield Cathedral (MA HS) – 2017
0 GP / 0 G / 0 A / 0 Pts
Waiting on HS hockey to start up.

I forgot to mention this in my recap over the weekend, but for those who missed it Zack LaRue and Oleg Yevenko were named assistant captains before Friday’s game.  Both solid choices and players who will need to do well for UMass to be successful this year.

Some interesting numbers coming out of the game against BU.  For example, their 8 goals represents 18% of their total conference game output last year.  Ugh.

Last month College Hockey News had this good introduction to some of the new stats now being used regularly in the game.  Since I enjoy numbers, you can bet on seeing some of them on FTT.

Polls & Awards

Not unexpectedly UMass is no longer receiving any votes in this week’s USCHO poll.  Providence dropped from third place to #5 with their opening weekend split at Ohio State.  Boston College dropped three spots to #7 after losing to Lowell, who was the big winner in the polls this week, jumping from #17 to #9.  With their decisive win over the Minutemen Boston University improved 6 spots to #14.  All in all 10 difference Hockey East teams are receiving votes in the polls, only UMass and UConn are not.

And here’s the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine Poll.

No mentions for UMass in this week’s Hockey East awards.

I missed this last week, but College Hockey News had their Hockey East Preview.

BU Recap

Through the first two periods Friday’s game against BU was going pretty much like I expected.  UMass got out to a pretty good start, dominating play for the first five minutes of the game.  But the Terriers were the better team for the final 15 minutes of the period and went into the first intermission with a 1-0 lead thanks to a goal by Robbie Baillargeon.

The second period was more balanced in terms of play and scoring.  BU gained a two goal lead when Nikolas Olsson scored his first collegiate goal.  Late in the second UMass was having a tough time getting the puck past freshman goaltender Connor LaCouvee who was a surprise starter when junior Matt O’Connor got hurt in practice earlier in the week.  It seemed as though the momentum shifted towards the Minutemen when Jake Horton scored his first collegiate goal with just :47 seconds to play in the second period.  During the same sequence BU’s John MacLeod took his third penalty of the night, putting the Minutemen on the power play.  They didn’t score in the final seconds of the period, but with the penalty carrying over into the third the Minutemen had a great chance at tying the game and battling for the win in the third.

Instead fans were treated to one of the worst periods of UMass hockey in recent memory.  The Minutemen failed to get a shot on net in the 1:13 of power play time to start the period.  Forty seconds later phenom Jack Eichel got his first goal of his (likely short) college career.  I’d like to think that the swing in momentum shook the inexperienced team and panic set in.  I hope that’s what it was.  Because that’s better than the alternative that they just gave up.  Things got ugly quick and six minutes into the period UMass found themselves down 5-1.  By the end of the game the final score was an embarrassing 8-1.  Steve Mastalerz gave up six of the goals, but honestly there was probably only one, maybe two, that I would pin on him.  He got no help in front of him.  Most of the goals consisted of BU rushing in between the circles and shooting at will.  Dill came in to relieve Mastalerz and got a similar level of support, giving up two goals on four shots.

Obviously my game preview couldn’t have been more wrong.  I thought the teams were facing similar challenges and would be evenly matched.  Instead what we got was the widest margin of defeat in a season opener in the modern era of UMass hockey, the previous being a 6-0 loss to Boston College in 2002.  I honestly have no idea what happened to the team in the third period .  When facing adversity they folded like a cheap card table.  Could it have been the youth?  Perhaps.  But as I mentioned in my season preview, this class was supposed to be full of proven winners.  Not to mention the fact that the BU was also just as inexperienced. They even started a freshman in net.  Inexperience doesn’t explain why some of the veterans played so poorly either.  Oleg Yevenko who was supposed to anchor the defense this year was on the ice for five of the Terrier goals.

Were there any positives?  A few.  The final score will mask the fact that the team played well enough to be in the game for two periods.  Jake Horton played well again, scoring his first goal.  UMass dominated in the faceoff circle, winning 40 of 63.  Steven Iacobellis alone won 13 of 17.  And the last positive is that UMass is in the early lead for the Charlie Holt Sportsmanship Award after taking zero penalties in the game.

I thought there could be games like the one we witnessed last night during this season, just because of the large amount of roster turnover.  I didn’t really expect it on opening night at home.  It was how they lost that worries me.  Once BU got that third goal there was very little effort or execution from the team, at least on defense.  The players must dedicate themselves to playing good defense going forward.  The rushes that led to the goals were inexcusable.  Things don’t get easy for the Minutemen as they now embark on a three week road trip that spans from Michigan to Maine.  Hopefully the trips will give the team a chance to bond and figure out how to avoid performances like last night.  At the very least, it can’t get much worse.

FTT Player of the Game
Not a lot of options for this one.  Either Iacobellis for his faceoff work or Horton for scoring the goal.  I’ll go with Horton for providing the lone highlight on the night.  It was a hell of a shot.

Gazette Recap
Collegian Game Story
More Collegian coverage on the talent difference between the teams’ top lines.
USCHO Recap

Former Minuteman Kevin Boyle got the 5-2 win over Boston College in his debut for Lowell.

Boston University Preview

#20 Boston University Terriers 0-0-0 (0-0-0) T-1st Hockey East

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Massachusetts Minutemen 0-0-0 (0-0-0) T-1st Hockey East

Eichel.  EichelEichelEichel.  EichelEichel.  Hey, you know how since Johnny Gaudreau has moved on to the NHL you were all excited that people might actually talk about other players and teams in Hockey East again?  WELL HAVE YOU HEARD ABOUT JACK EICHEL?!?!?  As of this writing Coach Micheletto is still planning on playing Boston University on Friday and is not entertaining the idea of forfeiting the game.  That’s a bit of a surprise since the word is Eichel plans to walk across the Connecticut River while carrying his team bus on his back, score 9 goals against the Minutemen, and then head uptown to make pizzas at Antonio’s all while the Club Sidewalk crowd chants “Eichel! Eichel! Eichel!”

Listen, Eichel is a tremendous talent.  I’m not disputing that.  Maybe he does come into the Mullins Center for his college hockey debut and score a bunch of goals and get his team the win.  It’s more than possible.  It just seems that the hype machine has cranked up a little early this year.  The BU team coming to Amherst is facing a lot of the same challenges that UMass is facing heading into the season.  The Terriers finished just two points ahead of UMass in the standings last year.  They were 9th in the league in scoring (UMass was 10th).  They were dead last in scoring defense (UMass was again 10th).  Like UMass they will have to figure out a way to quickly integrate and get contributions from 10 freshmen on their roster.  Now it helps that those freshmen make up arguably the best recruiting class in the country.  But that doesn’t change the fact that there are still significant questions marks surrounding this BU team that have to be solved before they become the old BU team that everyone used to fear.

The biggest question mark for the Terriers is probably in goal.  Matt O’Connor has spent his first two years at BU sharing the net with Sean Maguire, compiling a 15-17-6 record during the time.  Maguire has left school to recover from injury, leaving the job solely to O’Connor who will have to play significantly better if BU is going to find success.  That job could be difficult given that he’ll likely have three or even four freshman defenseman in front of him most of the season.  Getting junior defenseman Matt Grzelyck back from injury will help bring some experience and leadership to the young defensive corps.  Brandon Hickey and John MacLeod, both NHL draft picks, are a couple of the first year blueliners to keep an eye on.

Like UMass, the Terriers return just two 10 goal scorers from a year ago in sophomore Danny O’Regan and freshman Robbie Baillargeon.  O’Regan didn’t play in last week’s exhibition game due to injury but is expected to play tomorrow.  Baillargeon led the team in points last year with 27 (10 G, 17 A).  Senior Cason Hohmann will likely be counted on to score 10 goals this season, but beyond that the scoring duties will fall upon the underclassmen.  Eichel is the gem of the freshman class but watch for JJ Piccinich as well.  Piccinich scored 27 goals last season for Youngstown in the USHL last season.  Sophomores Nick Roberto and Kevin Duane will look to build off freshman seasons that saw them score 7 and 6 goals respectively.

UMass already showed us what will be the key to wins this season during last weekend’s exhibition.  Puck possession.  They won because they outscored Dalhousie 5-2.  They outscored Dalhousie because they outshot them 55-21.  They outshot them by a wide margin because of puck possession.  Dalhousie just never had the puck long enough to put any kind of pressure on the goaltenders and spent long stretches in their own zone.  An inexperienced defense combined with a set of offensively-minded, aggressive defense like UMass has can be devastating for a team that is turning over the puck and will lead to odd man rush after odd man rush on Minuteman goaltender Steve Mastalerz.  But by passing well, by protecting the puck on their stick, and energetically chasing loose pucks, UMass can minimize turnovers and breakdowns.  And they did that exceptionally well in the exhibition.  Can they do it against DI hockey talent?  We’ll see.  But last weekend was encouraging in regard to controlling the puck and thus controlling play.

As I mentioned in my season preview, these freshmen are experienced winners.  Which is good because there is going to be tremendous pressure on them from the time the puck drops tomorrow night until March, and hopefully April.  “Well he’s only a freshman” won’t be an acceptable excuse this year, simply because it can’t be.  The team can’t afford it.  The good news tomorrow is when the nine UMass freshman sit in the east bench at game time and look across the Mullins ice they’ll be seeing just as many players suiting up for their first collegiate game as well.

I think this matchup is a lot tighter than people are expecting.  The teams finished within a win of each other in conference play last year.  They both had problems putting the puck in the net and keeping it out of their own.  Both return just a couple double digit goalscorers from a year ago.  Both teams are inexperienced and a little thin on defense.  They both have large freshman classes making their college debuts.  Sure the Terrier freshmen are likely more talented.  But UMass has the advantage of starting a veteran goaltender who has played in and won big games in the past.  Plus the Minutemen will have what will hopefully be a large and raucous crowd behind them.  Starting tomorrow preseason polls mean nothing.  Ditto recruit rankings.  The best thing about season openers is that all teams are undefeated and tied for 1st place.  On Saturday we’ll start to know who’s truly better than whom.

Drop the puck!

Beer The Triangle

I have to send everyone back to the Hangar again this week just because the beer is amazing and Stoney is a quality guy in every way.  As of last Saturday they had Lagunitas Hop Stoopid, Port Mongo, and Jack’s Abbey Copper Legend on draft.  Hell, they even had Wormtown Pumpkin which I enjoyed even though I generally hate pumpkin beers.  There’s even rumors that Founders Breakfast Stout may be lurking in the backroom somewhere just waiting to be tapped.

UMass not only has a lot of new faces on the ice, but in the press box as well.  Here’s six stories from the new crop of Collegian writers previewing the upcoming season.

Matt Vautour of the Gazette has a feature on sophomores Ray Pigozzi (who is expected to suit up tomorrow) and Steven Iacobellis.  He also previews the tilt against BU.

USCHO previews Hockey East as well as a more detailed look at UMass specifically.

The Northeastern hockey program was placed on three years of probation for violations that occurred under former coach Greg Cronin.

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